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Here's what you need to know as Louisiana lawmakers kick off redistricting process

The first hearings will be held Oct. 20 at the University of Louisiana at Monroe and Oct. 21 at Louisiana State University - Shreveport. Additional details can be found on the legislature’s redistricting website.

Louisiana lawmakers kicked off the months-long effort to redraw the state’s political districts last week, using new population data collected during the 2020 census.

The effort will reshape the state’s congressional, state legislative, state Supreme Court, Public Service Commission and Board of Elementary and Secondary Education for the next decade.

The process began in earnest with the U.S. Census Bureau’s release of in-depth demographic data. The data show that the state’s overall population hasn’t changed all that much — Louisiana grew 2.74% over the last decade, while the United State grew 7.35%.

That means that unlike the last two redistricting cycles, Louisiana will not lose a seat in Congress this year. But the state has experienced significant population shifts within its borders, which have created imbalances in the current political maps at every level.

How will that impact the redistricting process and the key players involved? Here’s what the year to come could look like, according to some experts and Louisiana’s current processes.

Experienced legislative staffers like Patricia Lowery-Dufor said the reshuffling process will affect every part of the state.

“The potential for any district remaining untouched is probably zero,” Lowery-Dufor told state lawmakers in a meeting last month. “Redistricting is all about change, and ... if you look to your left and your right for your neighboring districts, you can see that there will have to be substantial changes made.”

At the same meeting, state demographer William Blair told lawmakers that Louisiana, like many other states, is seeing large numbers of people abandon rural communities for large cities, suburbs and exurban communities.

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Blair highlighted the exodus from rural parishes around Monroe and Shreveport and growth in the I-10 corridor in parishes like St. Bernard (22% growth), Ascension (18% growth) and St. Tammany (13% growth).

“(It) looks tough, but just know that this is part of a 40-year trend that we are experiencing.”

This intra-state migration has led to what demographers and redistricting experts like Blair call malapportionment, when the number of people in a district is significantly larger or smaller than the ideal district population. Malapportionment effectively weakens or enhances the electoral power of an individual vote.

As a result, one of the foundational rules of redistricting is that all districts should have roughly equal populations. State law requires that the population of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE), Public Service Commission (PSC) and state legislative districts have no more than 5% deviation from the ideal district size.

In the state House of Representatives, 66 of the 105 districts have populations outside the 5% acceptable deviation. In the state Senate, 25 of the 39 districts are outside the acceptable deviation.

Half of the BESE districts are either too large or too small by that standard. One of the five PSC districts fails to meet that standard.

Congressional districts do not have to meet the same standard, but instead must be as close to the ideal district population as is “practicable.” Two of the state’s six congressional districts fall outside that 5% range — the 4th Congressional District in northwest Louisiana is 6.2% smaller than the ideal district, and the Baton Rouge-based 6th Congressional District has a population 5.2% larger than what is ideal.

The state Supreme Court plays by entirely different rules in the interest of increasing minority representation. Only one of its seven districts has a population that’s within 5% of the ideal district size of 665,393 residents. The population of the 7th district, based in Orleans Parish, is 28% smaller than the theoretical “ideal district,” and the 5th district, which includes eight parishes in the greater Baton Rouge area, has a population that’s 26% larger than the ideal district.

But beyond malapportionment, many stakeholders take issue with the districts Louisianans have lived with for the last decade, saying they unfairly advantage the Republican lawmakers who drew the boundaries in 2011 and disadvantage communities of color.

Redistricting in Louisiana, like many other states, is an inherently political process. The Louisiana Constitution tasks the state legislature with redrawing the state’s political districts after each decennial census — including their own state legislative districts.

The use of the system across the country has prompted the criticism that redistricting upends the democratic process, allowing politicians to pick their voters and entrench the power-dominant political party by creating gerrymandered districts.

The redistricting process starts in the House and Governmental Affairs Committee and the Senate and Governmental Affairs Committee. Both committees are led by Republicans and both have Republican majorities.

Rep. John Stefanski (R-Crowley) chairs the House committee and Sen. Sharon Hewitt (R-Slidell) chairs the Senate committee. Stefanski and Hewitt will have a great deal of control over early efforts to redraw districts this fall.

The full legislature will convene a special session solely focused on redistricting early next year, when lawmakers will consider the maps drawn by the governmental affairs committees.

Like both committees, the legislature as a whole is controlled by a Republican majority. But Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards has the power to veto maps passed by the legislature, so he and his Democratic allies in the legislature will likely have a significant role in the process.

Some states take a different approach by empowering special redistricting commissions to redraw their political boundaries. Eight states have a redistricting commission redraw congressional district boundaries and 14 use a commission to redraw state legislative districts as well.

Peter Robins-Brown, policy and advocacy director for Louisiana Progress, said the commission model is not a cure-all. Many state commissions include state lawmakers and other elected officials — even nominally “non-partisan” commissions often end up with political players as members.

“There’s really no way to remove partisan politics from redistricting because ultimately it’s about power,” Robins-Brown said in an interview on Louisiana Considered last week.

Robins-Brown said people taking part in redistricting best serve the public when they keep certain democratic values at the center of their work.

His organization, which typically aligns with Democratic causes and advocates for Democrat-supported bills, approaches redistricting by prioritizing competitiveness and equal representation — specifically racial proportionality in the state’s political districts.

“Populations should have a voice and a vote and power that is commensurate with the portion of the population they make up,” Robins-Brown said, adding that creating majority-minority districts is not about shifting power from one party to another. “It’s more about how we further the values of representation and democracy and fairness.”

For example, roughly a third of Louisiana’s population is Black (33.1%), but only one of the state’s six congressional districts has a majority black population — the 2nd Congressional District.

The New Orleans-based district includes large portions of the River Parishes, then narrows as it passes through Ascension, Iberville, and the southern portion of West Baton Rouge and East Baton Rouge parishes before widening again to scoop up the predominantly Black neighborhoods of north Baton Rouge. Packing a large number of Black voters into that district effectively guarantees that Black voters decide who wins that seat, but doing so drains the Black voters’ political power elsewhere.

Robins-Brown said that may be a clear example of where an additional majority-minority district is needed, but having the number of majority-minority districts strictly match the state’s demographics is not the only way to ensure those communities are properly represented.

“I think what’s key is creating districts where black residents … make up a large enough voting bloc that an elected official would not be able to set their concerns to the side,” Robins-Brown said.

He added that this approach to racial proportionality also fosters competitiveness. Creating competitive districts can encourage elected officials to walk back from the extreme political positions of today’s hyper-partisan political climate.

“Politicians make a lot of decisions based on their own political calculus,” Robins-Brown said. “If what you’re worried about is your political flank, then you’re going to tend to move toward the extremes and you’re less likely to think that coming together to find a compromise solution that at least moves things forward is good for you politically.”

Recent polling shows that the public largely opposes partisan gerrymandering. An Associated Press/NORC poll conducted this spring found that 67% of respondents consider gerrymandering to be a “major problem” and was a greater concern than voter fraud. Another study conducted by the anti-corruption group RepresentUS found that 89% of respondents opposed the drawing of political districts to advantage one party or candidate.

Louisiana Progress is partnering with the Southern University Law Center, the ACLU of Louisiana, the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Power Coalition for Equity and Justice to host a redistricting webinar Thursday, Oct. 14. The event comes one week before the House and Senate Governmental Affairs Committees host their first of ten public redistricting hearings across the state where they will welcome public input on the process.

Copyright 2021 WRKF